WASHAKIE, Box Elder County — For most people, "ghost town" is just another term for "abandoned village."

But for members of the Northwestern Band of Shoshones, Washakie, Box Elder County — 50 miles north of Brigham City on I-15 — may look empty, but it's hardly abandoned. Spirits from the past in Washakie still form a vital community.

"I've sensed them," said Mae Parry, Shoshone historian and matriarch. "I'm sure others have, too."

Tom Pacheco, a tribal member, remembers visiting the Washakie graveyard and asking his wife the name of the Indian woman he saw hovering near her.

"What Indian woman?" his wife asked.

Pacheco says he suddenly realized it was the spirit of his grandmother.

Years ago, the town of Washakie was the cultural center for Utah's Shoshones. Tribal scribe Willie Ottogary filed his famous newspaper reports from there. Trains came through daily. Children chased along the ditches. In time, however, the number of people in the cemetery came to outnumber the living. Because of World War II and other strains, the town was eventually forsaken. Today, a polygamous group has moved in.

But just west of the town, the Washakie graveyard is still alive in the Shoshone heart. The recent census claims there are 589 Shoshones living in Utah. The census, however, forgot to count the spirits of their ancestors.

William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize novelist, said the dead — like the living — settle into neighborhoods. Such is the case in the Washakie cemetery. Scattered here and there — with plenty of elbow-room between them — honored Shoshone families huddle in family groups — the Pachecos, Newmans, Ottogarys and Timbimboos. Some lie in parallel mounds near the roadway. Others are tucked into the small groves of sage or lie alone and vulnerable on the hillside. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the arrangements. But there is poetry. And there is also a sense of the sacred.

The Washakie graveyard is holy ground.

Holy places, in fact, are a vital part of Shoshone identity. And it's ironic the tribe that defines itself most by landmarks and landscape owns almost no land in Utah. Of its meager 187 acres, 75 acres are taken up by the graveyard itself.

That's a tiny patch of earth for a tribe that once spread across the entire Mountain West.

Originally known as the "So-So-Goi" (those who travel on foot), the Shoshones walked — and rode — their way throughout the West, settling over a five-state area. Some put down roots in the Wind River region of Wyoming, where Fort Washakie is now the tribal headquarters. Others ended up in Fort Hall, Idaho, under the leadership of Chief Pocatello.

Those who remained in Utah — the Northwestern Band — lived under the watchful eye of Chief Sagwich.

In his book "Sagwich: Shoshone Chieftain, Mormon Elder 1822-1887," author Scott Christensen calls Sagwich "one of Utah's most significant native sons."

He was a key figure when George Washington Hill, a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, baptized the entire tribe at a bend in the Bear River near Corinne. Sagwich was also a key figure when the U.S. Army, under the command of Patrick Edward Connor, killed 250 Shoshone men, women and children in the 1863 "Bear River Massacre" at another bend in the Bear near Franklin, Idaho.

Today, those two events — and two sites — stand in high relief in the Shoshone legacy.

"I think they were the two defining events in our tribal history," said Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe. "In the early 1870s, every member of the tribe — except one — was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And the only reason he wasn't baptized was he was afraid of water. Somewhere between 200 and 300 Shoshones joined the church then."

One reason for the mass conversion was Sagwich. The chief is said to have had a vision of a red-haired stranger bringing the word of the Creator to his people and helping them find their way into the modern world. George W. Hill and his bright red hair eventually arrived on the scene.

Currently, many Shoshones maintain their allegiance to the LDS Church.

Mormonism is not the only religion of the Shoshone, of course. Like most tribes, their heritage is actually one of spiritual quest and renewal. Exact membership figures are often difficult to come by, because American Indians tend to flow freely between groups. Chief Washakie himself, for example, was baptized into the LDS faith, then later baptized Episcopalian.

Still, for American Indians, talk of religion almost always begins with talk of the Creator and the natural world. The Indian people are so allied with nature, in fact, that European settlers grouped them with the animals — a point of view that would eventually see American Indians lumped with bears, lions and eagles as mascots for sports teams. Indians were selected, not to honor them, as the current spin has it, but because they were thought to be as wild and fierce as the forest predators.

Ironically, Indians themselves don't mind being viewed as part of nature, says Rios Pacheco, a Shoshone artist. But instead of seeing themselves "fallen" to the level of nature, they see the natural world on the same level as human beings.

"You often hear native people talk about balance," Pacheco said.

"We live in a world of spirituality, and many of our languages reflect it," said Waya Ge-tlv-hv-s-di, an elder in the Utah Native American Church. "Everything that exists is addressed as a person, even computers. It's a very different way of seeing the world."

Many religions have books of scripture, for example. But for native people, the world itself is a holy book. A soaring eagle can be a wandering spirit or the portent of a birth. The smoke from burning tobacco carries prayers up to heaven.

When a cougar slowly approaches, Pacheco says, many Indians see in it the approach of something mysterious, a peek into the unknown.

"We see human characteristics in many things," Pacheco said.

And over the years, as the Shoshones and other tribes have adopted other religions, they have inevitably brought along their attitude about the holiness of the natural world.

Anthony Smith, an artisan who designed an American Indian shrine for the University of Utah Hospital, was reared Baptist, baptized Catholic and currently practices Native American customs. He knows firsthand the problems of blending faiths.

"I'm more broad than some as far as spirituality goes," Smith explained. "I look at the core things. The teachings are very similar about how we should live our lives and our ideas of God."

From Father John DeSmet in Montana to Father Escalante in Arizona, Christian missionary work among the Indians of the West has long been a priority for Christians. And the number of converts to each faith has often been a fluke of geography. When the country was divided up for proselyting in the 19th century, for instance, the Episcopalians were given the Wind River region of Wyoming as their missionary territory. Hence, the large number of American Indian Episcopalians in Wyoming and among Utah's Utes near the Wyoming border. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worked with many Wasatch Front Shoshones and made converts among the White Mesa Utah tribe near Blanding. The Catholics came up from Mexico and converted a great many Navajos in lower Arizona.

The ebb and flow of religion has been interesting.

"I would say that Native Americans have done pretty well at adapting to different faiths," Smith said. "If it works for them, if they have felt accepted, it has been a powerful part of their lives. If it clashes, Indian people will leave it out."

For Clyde Ottogary, a Shoshone Sun Dancer in Fort Hall, Idaho, the blend of Mormonism and native ways was a failure. In native cultures, he says, when you get adopted into an extended family, you have all the family privileges. When he became LDS, he says, he felt the family feelings were mostly talk.

"In time, I saw two roads," he said, speaking of his return to American Indian ways. "I went from one road back to the other."

Mae Parry, on the other hand, has felt perfectly at home in the LDS world.

"It wasn't that hard for me to blend Mormonism and Shoshone religion," she said. "The Indians have always been a religious people, and a lot of the things the Mormons brought to us were already being taught in the tribe — things like honoring your father and mother."

Tinna Holiday, a Navajo elder, sums it up this way:

"It all depends on how you were raised," she says. "A person raised traditionally may join the LDS Church and later return to traditional ways. I've taken the native teachings and blended them with the LDS Church and now they feel like one thing. Navajo religion is a way of life, it's not something you can put aside. And I think, in that regard, traditional ways are closer to LDS teachings."

Today, Shoshones such as George Abeyta, Patty Madsen and Aaron Pacheco continue to add a bright and varied spirit to the LDS Church. Some trace their LDS heritage back five — even six — generations. They have been LDS as long as many pioneer families.

Still, if that baptismal day of the Bear River — when the entire Shoshone tribe was converted to the LDS faith — was a time of rejoicing and a new beginning, a decade earlier another spot on the Bear River was a time for grief and mourning.

The "Bear River Massacre" was once called the "Battle of Bear River," but Mae Parry was instrumental in getting the name changed to "the Bear River Massacre" and pointing up the so-called "battle" was actually one-sided. Babies and old people were unceremoniously slaughtered.

"I wrote so many letters trying to get the name changed to 'massacre,' " she said today. "Sometimes I felt like the Lone Ranger."

It was a harrowing day for Shoshones and settlers alike; and a low-point in Western history. Today, the massacre remains an open wound for many tribal members. There are so many stories of women and children being slaughtered that a great many in the tribe are still trying to emotionally deal with the devastation. The Northwestern Band, in fact, was only recently reorganized in 1980.

"Every time I visit the site I feel the battle is still raging," Mae Parry said. "I don't like to go there."

Over time the true story has emerged. After the confrontation on Jan. 29, 1863, Col. Connor was decorated and considered a war hero for his actions. But now his attack on the winter encampment has taken on the air of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam War. Books have been written about it. New anecdotes surface.

One of the most famous involves Chief Sagwich again, and how he was shot in the hand but survived. With his wife dead and a baby in need of suckling, he put the baby where the Mormons would find her. Several Shoshones claim to be descended from that child. There were also stories of women having to set their babies adrift in the waters of the Bear River so their crying wouldn't betray the hiding places of others.

Mae Parry, now 82, is dedicating her remaining years to telling the stories of those who survived the massacre, especially the women.

At the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Cache County, connected to Utah State University, the Shoshone tribe has an exhibit. And the massacre, says Desiree Jenks, marketing coordinator for the center, is always being discussed.

"The No. 1 thing is always the Bear River Massacre," she said. Rios Pacheco, who works as a consultant for the exhibit, says he tries to use the massacre to steer people into other topics, such as religion and art.

The Shoshone exhibit was a popular display last summer. A shade house shows how Shoshones would shelter themselves from the summer sun, artifacts contributed by members of the tribe show the legacy the So-so-goi have left behind.

"We're trying to help them preserve their heritage, and also their land," Jenks said, "the land where they originally lived."

The exhibit is closed down for the winter but will open again on Memorial Day.

As for the Shoshone people themselves, however, many seem intent now on moving ahead and looking to the future.

Among the bright possibilities are hopes for acquiring new tribal lands in Utah. Tribal arts and crafts — with their popular Shoshone diamond patterns — are being showcased today as never before. And there's even talk of resurrecting the town of Washakie itself. Plans for a new recreational reservoir at Washakie have some even thinking about "going home" again.

For now, Mae Parry said, "The cemetery is the only thing that brings our people back together again."

Chief Sagwich's words in 1875 still pack a punch.

"My father's bones lie on this soil and my mother's as well," he said, "and I claim the privilege of laying mine with theirs."

With luck, some dedicated letter writing by the likes of Mae Parry and — yes — perhaps some divine intervention, that may yet happen. In time, the living Shoshones may be able to help the ghosts of Washakie, and themselves, to find peace.


Contributing: Coming Sunday: The Goshutes and the fight in the desert

E-MAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com